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Monday, April 23rd, 2018

2015 Pinot Noir

On particularly trying winemaking days, I can usually convince myself that I would be perfectly content just growing and selling grapes.  This assumption was emboldened by a recent accolade received by all the wines made from Lowrey Pinot Noir.

With the stressful filtering and bottling sessions behind us, I nervously pour myself the first glass of newly bottled 2015 Five Rows Pinot Noir…and all the reasons we started a winery in the first place come swirling back.  The familiar hallmarks of our terroir leap from the glass and reassure my skeptical nose.  I experience the wine first in aromas and flavours, then in memories (good and bad) of my days spent in that vineyard.  The balanced finish and pleasing tannins give me hope that the 2015 Pinot Noir will create future memories for all those who choose to cellar it.

Thanks to Rick Vansickle for his kind words, and to all the Winemakers who do such wonderful things with our fruit.  Most of all, I thank the late Karl Kaiser – my words will never be enough to adequately honour him for the legacy he helped inspire.

 

2015 Syrah

After a second consecutive extreme winter in 2014-15, most of our Syrah vines simply said “uncle”.  The majority of primary buds were dead, and many of those that did bud out eventually collapsed.  We were left with a shoot here and a cluster there, making it very difficult to look after the vineyard in a balanced manner.  It was a pleasant surprise when we were able to eke out enough fruit for 4 barrels.

I will always associate the 2015 Syrah with living in a trailer beside the barn during harvest (our home was undergoing major renovation).  Those memorable Airstream days featured a leaky roof, cool weather, sleeping in a small bed with three dogs, exciting playoff baseball (the Jays losing ALCS Game 6 to the Royals – ugh) and, eventually, nice ripe Syrah!

The 2015 Syrah features a uniquely smoky nose, with hints of pepper and cassis.  The palate is more fruit-driven than the nose lets on, and exhibits the typical cool climate Syrah savouriness and texture that I love.

 

2015 Cabernet Sauvignon

I’ve been crafting Cab Sauv longer than any other varietal, and this – the 11th Five Rows Cab – is a striking amalgam of its forebears.  It has the noticeable concentration of 2005 (another short crop year), the unmistakeable ripeness of 2004, 2007 and 2010, the floral subtleties of 2008 and 2009, the wonderful aromatic strength of 2011 and 2012, and it shows the versatility of being drinkable now and potentially ageable like the 2013 and 2014.

Then again, aren’t we all a patchwork of those that came before?

 

2017 Sauvignon Blanc

The summer rains of 2017 made vine vigour and crop level control in Sauv Blanc absolutely paramount.  The vintage was rescued by the dry heat of September, which helped to ripen what were now massive berries and clusters.  For once, we had the luxury of harvesting the crop with as much acidity as was desired (we opted for 8.5 g/L).

I’ve always enjoyed my Sauv Blanc a little on the “crisper” side, both as a food pair and sipping wine.  The 2017 is an example of that style, more so because of the conditions we faced than anything done differently in the winery.  We stuck with the tried and true formula of a 75% older French oak / 25% stainless steel fermentation ratio – all with X5 yeast.  The amount of malolactic fermentation that took place is my only secret…mainly because I have no idea.

 

2017 Pinot Gris

I think it’s okay to reveal that I’m usually partial to the barrel-fermented portion of our Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Gris.  Of all the wines we crafted in the 2017, however, my favourite was the tank-fermented Pinot Gris.

It was so tropical and lush that I toyed with the idea of keeping it separate and releasing it on its own.  The problem became one of logistics, as it was only 300L or so – making it an awkward volume to support a one-off bottling.  In the end, the final blend proved to be far more complex than the individual components, so I don’t regret the decision to give my precious tank over to the barrels.  We’ll always have that month of fermentation…

 

2017 Riesling

I consider Jean’s Block Riesling to be the most “personal” of our wines for many reasons, but mainly because I dial it in to my palate specifically.  I taste the fermentation constantly near the end of its time, and stop it at the precise point where I feel the residual sugar level balances the natural acidity.

It occurs to me now that the fatal flaw in “personal” winemaking is this:  you are the only one to blame if the wine is perceived to be out of balance by everyone else!  Thankfully for yours truly, the aromatics of this wine are the real star, and rival the Sauv Blanc in intensity – something I’d never have been willing to concede in year’s past.

 

All wines are available for pre-order now (wines@fiverows.com).  Reds are $55 and Whites $35.  The Five Rows Barn is set to re-open on weekends starting June 2nd, 2018.  See you soon!

 

Wednesday, December 20th, 2017

For generations now, all major accomplishments on the Lowrey farm have been accompanied with the wave of a hat and a boisterous cry of, “Wahooooo!!”.  Whether it was planting our first field of Pinot Noir or harvesting our last crop of plums, I fondly recall my Grandfather doing this on numerous occasions.  As the years went on, the ‘Wahoo’ rallying cry crept slowly into everyday life, and could be heard over multiple St. David’s phone exchanges following Joe Carter home runs and Doug Gilmour OT winners.  With pride and nostalgia, I now channel his unabashed joy at the end of a long harvest.

Winemakers know that the real end of vintage cannot be marked until the last of the reds are pressed and racked to barrel.  It is only then that the true celebrating and reflecting begins.  This can be difficult for the grape grower turned winery owner who is more accustomed to throwing a hat in the air as the last cluster of Cabernet Sauvignon is cut from the vine.  We’ll give Howie a pass here, because he worked so hard to keep the hungry birds at bay until the not-so-bitter end.

As the last days of August gloomily came and went, it became apparent that some kind of miracle would be required to ripen the later varietals in 2017.  The collective mood around the industry was grim, to the point where I actually started to make alternative arrangements in case the Syrah and Cab Sauv did not pan out.  None of us knew it at the time, but the late season heat wave that we had all but written off was slowly making its way across the prairies.

A wet summer had fattened up clusters to the point where early varietal yields were up nearly 20% across the board – surprisingly not at the expense of fruit quality.  The September heat arrived at the perfect time to kick ripening into gear, validating the old adage that a stellar Fall can save any vintage.  The Sauv Blanc and Pinot Gris came in clean and full of flavour, with the luxury of good natural acidity.  The Pinot Noir and Riesling required painstaking botrytis control, but we managed to get them off just prior to a biblical deluge of rain.

After dodging our own mini-hurricane season and a few brushes with October frost, Vintage 2017 came to a pleasing denouement.  Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah berries began to desiccate and concentrate in mid-October and the vines held foliage well into November, allowing for as late a harvest as was desired.  Wilma aptly noted, while we brought in the last of the Cab, that it seemed like we had favourable weather on every picking date this year – and she couldn’t recall that ever happening before.

That might just be worthy of a Wahoo!

Please join us to celebrate this memorable year at one (or both) of our upcoming Treadwell Winemaker Dinners.

 

 

Sunday, August 13th, 2017

Lately, I’ve gotten into the habit of singing the song “Here Comes the Sun” to my daughter every morning, in hopes of changing the prevailing weather pattern of 2017.  I make an effort not to complain too much about the excessive rain around her, just to lessen the chance she grows up to be a crotchety grape farmer.  So, instead, we focus on “sunnier” topics and stories from glorious vintages of the past.

She has no idea that you can literally watch the vines grow this year – we must have set some kind of record for photosynthesis by now!  I can’t recall a year where every bud on every shoot is alive and thriving.  On the macro level this is a great thing (healthy vines, good crop level, replenished water table), but when you are fully immersed in this tropical Niagara jungle on a daily basis, you quickly realize the enormity of task we are up against.

The rains of 2017 have been a frightening reminder that there is no “typical” growing season anymore.  There could not be a more stark contrast between two vintages than 2016 and 2017 to this point.  Consequently, our vineyard strategies have had to be dramatically altered to account for the increase in shoot growth.

Unfortunately, it’s not as simple as just aggressively thinning down the vines to their “normal” level, because the few leftover shoots and clusters would grow too vigorously.  Therefore, I’ve taken more of a staggered approach to thinning this year, letting vines gradually acclimate to the increase in water and nutrient uptake.  Keeping more shoots and clusters on the vine for a longer period of time can also be risky, because too much crowding in the canopy might lead to increased disease pressure.  So being out there every day thinning, scouting and gauging shoot growth is essential.

Thankfully, the disease pressure has been minimal thus far…that is until we sustained some hail damage over the past week, presenting a new challenge of split and bruised berries.  Split berries and excessive humidity are the perfect recipe for Botrytis, so we are pulling leaves and opening up the canopy a little earlier than normal to help dry up the hail damage.  For the record, I’m not quite comfortable using the B-word around Frances yet.

This season has proven to be an exercise in patience and adaptation.  I hold out hope, looking at the sunny long range forecast, that my determined morning sing-along is finally paying off!

 

 

 

Friday, April 21st, 2017

2016 Sauv Blanc

2014 Pinot Noir

Production: 143 cases

Aromas –  cherry, floral (violet), red licorice (Nibs), truffle, earth, mushroom

Palate –  typical “Lowrey terroir” profile of ripe cherry, pleasing acidity and evolved tannic structure

 

2014 Syrah

Production: 122 cases

Aromas –  wild black raspberry, pepper, cooked meat, tobacco

Palate –  ripe red fruit (cherry, plum), savoury core, smooth tannins make it hard not to drink right now

 

2014 Cabernet Sauvignon

Production: 123 cases

Aromas –  wild black raspberry, cherry, bell pepper, violet

Palate –  cherry flavoured candy, currant, dark chocolate, structural versatility to enjoy now with meats and cheeses or to lay down for another few years

 

2016 Sauvignon Blanc

Production: 220 cases

Aromas –  pineapple, starfruit, grapefruit, peach drink, vanilla bean

Palate –  ripe tropical flavours balanced by crisp citrus notes, lingering finish, best enjoyed just below room temperature

 

2016 Pinot Gris

Production: 110 cases

Aromas –  honeydew melon, apricot, whispers of single malt scotch

Palate –  full-bodied, balanced, signature Lowrey Pinot Gris texture, tastes like Wilma’s homemade butter tarts

 

2016 “Jean’s Block” Riesling

Production: 119 cases

Aromas –  intense and alluring, floral notes with strong citrus undertones, apple

Palate –  zippy acidity, a real depth of flavour, balanced finish, excellent food pairing wine, serve slightly chilled

 

Friday, April 21st, 2017

As we get ready for another busy spring season of new wines and budding vines, I’m faced with an unforeseen conundrum.  It comes in the form of a nine pound baby girl named Frances, and the seeming lack of hours in a day to do what I used to do.

Those who have read this blog would know me as a hyper-focused creature of habit, eagerly devoting my time to barn and field.  In my defence, the task just draws you in completely – to the point where it consumes much of your thought and attention should you let it…and I do.  I’ve managed to convince myself that this is the only possible way to make good wine and damned be the person or thing (aside from my dogs) that gets in the way of this ultimate pursuit!

Enter the cuddly conundrum.  My wife, Tanya, and I recently decided to start a family and were blessed with a healthy baby girl on March 19th, 2017 – the ultimate reality check.  To say that my priorities have been altered would be an understatement, but not quite in the way that I expected.  At a time when I was fully prepared to be overwhelmed and stretched thin, I somehow feel more capable than ever to summon the effort required to produce the best possible fruit that our land will allow.  Little Frances has no idea that she’s already had a positive impact on the way I approach farming and life.

Perhaps it is a renewed sense of stewardship for future generations or perhaps it is just adrenaline.  Either way, I feel more inspired to work hard and less restrained by previous fears and uncertainties.  This is entirely due to the support of those around me:  Tanya, my parents, retail staff, vineyard crews and our beloved “Five Rows Faithful”.  I know I can count on them to keep the barn humming, even when I’m at home being a Dad.

So no need to worry, the wines will get the same attention they always do – you’ll just have to sit through a few baby pictures to get a taste!

FrancesBarn

 

 

 

Friday, April 21st, 2017

Few things inspire me more than people who can write and perform music.  Every year I try to attend as many concerts as possible to nurture my love of live musical performance.  The beautifully raw sound, the connection with the audience and seeing someone uninhibited at the top of their craft is as good as it gets.

I’ve come to grips with the fact that I can never be a rock star, but it struck me one summer night, as I was walking out of a Bahamas show at Jackson-Triggs, that I’m lucky enough to express myself through my wines and in conversations with visitors to our barn.

The more I thought about it, the more I came up with interesting parallels between me and my songwriting idols.  Here are a few:

Songs have music and lyrics, wines have viticulture and enology.

I prefer to release “albums” as opposed to catchy singles.

We are constantly being judged, often times right to our face (this can be good and bad).

People want to hear the hits (Sauv Blanc), so you must resist getting tired of playing them and never take them for granted.  However, you can’t rest on your laurels and should always strive to create new content.

It can feel monotonous at times, but you have to remember that every performance could be someone’s introduction to your work.

There are times when we want to be new and innovative and times when we’d rather be rooted and old-fashioned.

Like the best songs, wines speak to everyone differently and are often interpreted in unanticipated ways.

Eventually other people take ownership of your work and you have to let it go.

There is much solitary time, but the joy is in sharing your craft.

My wines are my songs – not everyone will like them, but that’s okay.

 

 

 

Thursday, December 22nd, 2016

On behalf of my family, I would like to extend a warm holiday ‘Cheers’ to all those who’ve helped make this our most enjoyable winery season to date.  We were thrilled to have so many familiar faces join us for their annual tasting visit – and before we knew it all the wines had left the barn.

To all those who happened upon Five Rows for the first time in 2016, we say welcome, and we look forward to seeing you again next year!

The holidays tend to be a time when our friends dust off and crack open an older vintage of our wine (we do the same), a tradition that we are very proud to be a part of.  Please let us know how your bottle has aged and evolved by registering it on our Provenance page.

Merry Christmas to all!

 

 

Wednesday, December 21st, 2016

It is difficult to sum up an entire growing season in a couple of words, but I’d bet if you asked a bunch of Ontario grape growers and winemakers to describe 2016, the bulk of them would quickly reply, “hot and dry!”

That will be the narrative going forward, but obviously there is much more to explore about this fascinating season.  I learned many things in 2016, most of which the hard way.  There was no precedent in my memory bank for such prolonged dry conditions, especially when the weather forecast seemed to feature a constant 60% chance of precipitation five days from now.  Front after threatening front would approach and break-up at the escarpment, splitting north and south of St. David’s and leaving us basking in sunlight.

I was reticent to use irrigation early in the season and this proved to be a tactical error.  Having completed a Master’s Degree in Viticulture entitled  “Examining the Effects of Deficit Irrigation on Cool Climate Chardonnay”, you’d think I’d know better.  When we finally decided to irrigate our vines, it was inevitable that a chain would break on our traveler cannon, and the town would impose water restrictions…our drought continued.

The first lesson learned is that you are flying blind if you don’t take steps to measure vine and soil water status to gauge potential stress.  It was pointed out to me that this is second nature in BC, but foreign to many Ontario farmers.  We tend to think of a drought as something that pops up every five years or so (2007, 2012, 2016), but perhaps it will prove to be a climate change related trend going forward.

Thankfully, the older vines didn’t seem to mind the stressful conditions and continued to thrive.  Younger vines, those plated in 2009 and later, showed signs of stress even with supplemental irrigation.  Bloom phase is a critical point in the season to ensure the vines have adequate water and nutrition.  The lack of early rain in 2016 meant that any spring nutrition added in the form of fertilizer and manure could not percolate down to the roots at bloom, ultimately leading to poor fruit set.

Another observation from this past year is that some blocks have not fully recovered from the winters of 2013 and 2014.  Replacement of dead and damaged trunks has left these vineyards unbalanced in terms of vine status, nutrient allocation and ultimately vigour within each row.  More evidence is the increase in crown gall virus, which can be caused by cold temperature splitting of trunk tissue.

The effects of the drought may actually have a short term silver lining.  In 2016, winemakers were thrilled to see lower crop levels, smaller berry size, moderate vine stress and little canopy growth after veraison – all of which being favourable conditions for crafting premium wines.  If the aromatic intensity of the 2016 whites is of any indication, we have may have something to be very excited about.

I’m sure 2017 will present its share of surprises and challenges, but I definitely intend to be more proactive when it comes to the water and nutrient status of my vines.

 

 

Tuesday, October 4th, 2016

Harvest 2016

Am I a writer or am I a winemaker?  Is my time better spent writing a blog post or thinning Syrah?  These are the types of burning, legacy-defining, useless questions that plague my thoughts over the grueling days of harvest.  I believe it to be an innate method of stress deflection to have internal debates about completely nonsensical topics.

The debate continues:

I will be forever grateful to my friends Barry and Leslie for encouraging me to start a blog chronicling some of my family farm stories.  However, none of this would have come to fruition had I not become a winemaker first.

From the earliest days of creative writing in grade four, I had an affinity to tell stories – but hated taking the time required to sit down and type them out.  I do not possess the patience to write a book.

I am definitely a better writer after consuming a few drinks.  Ironically, being a winemaker requires a laser-like, sober focus to achieve best results.

Easy growing seasons in the vineyard make for boring stories and difficult writing (if not boring wines!).  Thankfully, Niagara NEVER has easy growing seasons and 2016 has been a prime example.  If you weren’t lucky enough to have have old, deep-rooted vines or access to irrigation equipment, your winemaking skills were put to a serious challenge.  Everyone loves a wine with a good back story.

Some of my best wine-related writing will never get seen by the masses.  It is confined to my private cellar notes and yearly harvest log, which read like great tragedies.  I tend to be a “pessimistic optimist” whose emotions rise and fall with the daily fluctuations in weather.  Frustration and vulnerability ooze from the wine-stained pages.  Conversely, the winemaker in me strives to never let them see me sweat.

In the end, it becomes obvious that all aspects of my job are dependent on one another for me to achieve success.  I take comfort in this thought, feeling fortunate to have such a fluid job description.

Writer.  Winemaker.  Vineyard Philosopher.

Some of my recent thoughts on the 2016 harvest can be seen in video form here.

 

 

Friday, June 24th, 2016

Vineyard workers sneeze in unison as the unmistakable smell of grapevines in bloom wafts across the peninsula.  Each pull of a shoot or yank of a sucker knocks thousands of pollen particles into the air – and eventually into our collective nasal passages to create one mighty “sonic bloom”.

What a difference a year makes.  I remember the abject despair with which I traversed these rows last spring, as one vine after another collapsed into oblivion.  The growing season of 2015 became more about rejuvenation than celebration in a number of varietals – particularly Syrah and Sauvignon Blanc.

I can’t begin to describe the relief in watching the tender suckers I white-knuckled together last season become the strong, fully-budding trunks I see before me now.  There are still failures, but not nearly in the magnitude of 2015.  Ideal weather conditions have helped get us back on track and now I can shift my focus back to formulating a plan to shape and position these burgeoning vines.

Please stay with me here as I attempt to outline a mindset that some may find perplexing.  I was a weird kid (you can debate whether this has changed) who always found comfort in a well-organized strategy.  Toys were for displaying and cataloging, not playing with.  Upon receipt of the official Toronto Maple Leaf 1984-85 Fact Book, I set out to memorize the birthdays and relevant personal facts of the entire roster, just so I could be prepared if anyone ever asked me.  Kids growing up in the Google age will never experience the joys of memorizing useless facts – like Walt Poddubny’s pre-game meal or Bill Derlago’s favourite out of town restaurant.

So here is where my head is at when I look out over the vineyard on this first day of summer: roughly 150 rows to tackle, at an average of 3 rows per day, means that I should be able to finish properly fashioning my vines in about 50 days.  Factoring in that my progress will be slower as the days get hotter and the vine growth intensifies, and throwing in the odd “wife-mandated” day off, I should be done thinning in about two months.

I’m most efficient working down each row from left to right and prefer not to leave an unfinished row at the end of the day.  One veteran move is to always work on the shady side of the row (west side in the morning, east side in the afternoon), as it will keep you cooler throughout the day and the contrast will be better for locating unwanted growth.

My traditional starting point would be the Pinot Noir blocks, but the Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon are showing the strongest vigour this year, with an inordinate amount of secondary shoots and an explosion of centrally located growth – all of which must go!

There is a method to this mindset, as I find greater motivation when jobs have a clear start and end point.  It is one reason why we release wines only once per year.  The wine is bottled and the wine is sold, then we start all over again.  It may be what appeals to me most about farming – every season has a harvest, an ultimate prize to work toward and celebrate upon it’s completion.

That’s enough typing for now…I’ve got three rows to finish.